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The striosome compartment within the dorsal striatum has been implicated in reinforcement learning and regulation of motivation, but how striosomal neurons contribute to these functions remains elusive. Here, we show that a genetically identified striosomal population, which expresses the Teashirt family zinc finger 1 (Tshz1) and belongs to the direct pathway, drives negative reinforcement and is essential for aversive learning in mice. Contrasting a "conventional" striosomal direct pathway, the Tshz1 neurons cause aversion, movement suppression, and negative reinforcement once activated, and they receive a distinct set of synaptic inputs. These neurons are predominantly excited by punishment rather than reward and represent the anticipation of punishment or the motivation for avoidance. Furthermore, inhibiting these neurons impairs punishment-based learning without affecting reward learning or movement. These results establish a major role of striosomal neurons in behaviors reinforced by punishment and moreover uncover functions of the direct pathway unaccounted for in classic models.